‘Rescue’: a new PC term for repatriation

As the sex-trafficking scare is exposed as a tissue of lies, Nathalie Rothschild spells out the need for full freedom of movement for migrants.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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It must be tough discovering that an issue you have invested money, column inches or even a career in is no more than a delusion. In the face of such a realisation, some accept their mistakes, while others react with denial. Some choose to keep shtum in order to avoid embarrassment, while others pretend to have known all along that it was a non-issue.

All these reactions have manifested themselves in the week since the UK Guardian revealed that a major inquiry into sex trafficking has failed to find a single person in the UK who has forced anybody into prostitution against their will, ‘in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country’ (1).

The Guardian got hold of an internal police analysis of the six-month campaign, Operation Pentameter Two. It showed that after extensive intelligence-gathering and raids on 822 brothels, flats and massage parlours across Britain, only 96 people were arrested for trafficking, and out of these only 15 men and women were convicted. For 10 of them, police found no evidence of their having coerced prostitutes. In the end, only five men were found to be genuine traffickers – that is, they had imported women and forced them into prostitution – but they had been detected before the Pentameter investigation started (2).

In other words, Pentameter, an operation heralded as ‘the largest ever police crackdown on human trafficking’, was a waste of time. How did the discussion about trafficking become so dislocated from facts and evidence? This is the story of a modern-day scare, in which liberal broadsheets, feminist campaigners and New Labour politicians pretty much invented a ‘trafficking epidemic’ in order to justify their roles in the world and to clamp down on immigration in a new, PC way.

Seeing victims everywhere

Two weeks before the Guardian’s revelations, the Metropolitan Police had announced that it was considering disbanding its specialist human trafficking team, though it claimed that this was due to a lack of funding rather than a gaping hole in trafficking statistics. The proposed disbandment was criticised by several major charities, including Amnesty International, the NSPCC and the Poppy Project, which is funded by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform to support women who have been trafficked into prostitution (3).

Mary Honeyball MEP launched a petition to stop the Met from closing its trafficking unit, a decision she defended even after last week’s revelations of the shambolic Pentameter operation (4). ‘To demote the issue of human trafficking, when it is recognised by Interpol as the third largest crime after drugs and arms trafficking, shows not only contempt for the victims of this horrific crime but also for the members of this police unit who are internationally regarded as an example of good practice’, she said (5). For abolitionists intent on criminalising the sex industry and saving women from falling into disrepute, there need not be any perpetrators in order for there to be victims.

In a letter to the Guardian, Fiona Mactaggart, the Labour MP who earlier this year claimed that 80 per cent of prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking (6), said: ‘I have always been of the view that anyone coerced into selling their body experiences unacceptable abuse of their human rights’ (7).

Just like her fellow state feminists Jacqui Smith (who as home secretary sought to penalise men who visit prostitutes) and minister for women and equality Harriet Harman (who has described sex trafficking as a ‘modern-day slave trade’), Mactaggart sees any woman working in the sex industry as, by definition, exploited and abused (8). For these caring feminists, any woman who claims to have chosen to enter the sex industry, or who regards sex work as preferable to other work, is simply deluded or in the pay of some pimp. So Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters argued that the Guardian’s assessment of the police’s Pentameter analysis was flawed because it ‘suggests that prostitution is generally a voluntary activity’ (9).

This is the starting point to the trafficking scare: the idea that women who work in the sex industry cannot think for themselves; that they are victims even if they do not consider themselves as such.

Self-styled ‘abolitionists’ and anti-trafficking activists tend to claim that only a small minority of privileged, Western sex workers are against the criminalisation of sex work. Yet, as I have reported previously on spiked, around the world thousands of sex workers – rich and poor, young and old, from the developed and developing world – have organised to campaign for their working rights (10). I have met sex workers and sex workers’ rights activists from the UK, Europe, the US, Latin America and South East Asia who, while acknowledging that there is nothing romantic about sex work and that exploitation and abuse does occur, also vehemently assert their agency and refuse to be tagged as victims by definition.

For abolitionists, however, it is inconceivable that some women choose to sell sex because they enjoy it or because they prefer it to the less lucrative job alternatives available to them. It is strange that self-proclaimed feminists should regard millions of women around the world as morally compromised, as hapless victims without agency.

The ‘lack of credible data’

As for the debate on trafficking, Gupta acknowledges that it is ‘bedevilled by the lack of credible data’ just like ‘other subterranean issues’, such as domestic violence or rape, where ‘numbers are unknowable’. Yet for all that, Gupta is certain that trafficking is a widespread problem – it’s just that it’s difficult to prove it (11).

Similarly, the New Labour MP Dennis MacShane, who has campaigned against the ‘sex slave trade’, agrees that a lack of proof around forced prostitution does not invalidate campaigns against it. Criticised in the Guardian and in a BBC Newsnight report last week for once claiming in a Commons debate that 25,000 women had been trafficked into Britain – a ‘fact’ he had grabbed from a Daily Mirror headline – MacShane now acknowledges that ‘I honestly don’t know how many girls are trafficked into Britain’. But curiously, having relied on a shocking figure to lend credibility to his campaign, MacShane also dismissed the new revelations around trafficking as ‘a futile war of statistics’ (12).

It is disingenuous for anti-trafficking activists and sex-industry abolitionists to dismiss the lack of real evidence around trafficking as irrelevant when they themselves have relied so heavily on figures to lend weight to their moralistic and emotive campaigns. The second component of the trafficking panic has been imaginary statistics; the great ‘slavery scare’ is underpinned by claims that human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry affecting millions of men, women and children around the world (13).

Although trafficking refers to the illegal transportation of people for the purposes of exploitation in a wide range of industries, it is primarily when migrants enter the sex industry that they tend to become objects of concern for anti-trafficking campaigners. As Dr Nick Mai, a senior research fellow in Migrations and Immigrations at London Metropolitan University, pointed out at an event this summer marking the publication of his research into migrant sex workers in the UK, some migrants choose to work in the sex industry in order to avoid exploitation in other industries, where there is frequently low pay and long working hours.

Despite the fact that migrants can earn significantly more in the sex industry than they would as domestic workers or seasonal agricultural workers, migrant sex workers are regarded as the most exploited and abused just because they are selling sex or erotic services. Ultimately, ‘trafficking’ has become a powerful and emotive tool for prostitution abolitionists to win wider public support for their efforts to clamp down on the sex industry as a whole.

Now, in the face of stark evidence that police, policymakers and various non-governmental organisations have failed to lock up a single person in the UK for enforced prostitution, abolitionists simply point out, in Rumsfeldian fashion, that there are a great deal of ‘hidden victims’ in whose name rescue operations must continue.

A broadsheet panic about immigrants

Much of the debate around the sex industry is infused with a sense of panic; women working in the sex industry are regarded as a threat to the moral fabric. Last week, in revealing the failure of Pentameter to find a single sex trafficker in the UK, the Guardian’s Nick Davies outlined ‘the anatomy of a moral panic’ around prostitution and trafficking. He criticised the ‘tide of misinformation’ around the subject of sex trafficking in the UK and said alarmist stories in the media have been treated as reliable sources by politicians, informing misguided policymaking (14).

Looking at headlines of stories about trafficking and migrant sex workers from the past five years, it seems Davies has a point. Here are some examples:

‘Migrant women forced into cheap sex trade’; ‘We must help end the sex slave trade’; ‘Sex slaves to be offered “safe houses”’; ‘Lap-dancing clubs are not cafés. They are the sex industry on the high street’; ‘Trafficked, prostituted, raped: the kite who flew away’; ‘Fifth of Britons unknowingly aid child trafficking, according to survey’; ‘Nightmare world of suburban sex slaves’; ‘Raped, beaten and helpless: UK’s sex slaves’; ‘The teenagers traded for slave labour and sex’.

Where did all these headlines appear? They are all from Nick Davies’s own newspaper, the Guardian, except for one that appeared in the Guardian’s sister publication, the Observer. The Guardian has described human trafficking as a ‘trade in misery and abuse’ and according to the article about teenage slaves, published in 2003, Britain has become ‘an easy target for child trafficking gangs’ where hundreds of children are forced into domestic servitude or sexual exploitation, ‘trapped in rooms with no papers, no identity, where they are nothing but a commodity traded for slave labour or tawdry sex, and living under the fear of voodoo’. Voodoo? Even tabloid attacks on migrants haven’t gone so far as to claim that black magic is used in immigrant circles to enslave women. This is the third key aspect of the trafficking scare – it was lent authority, given its impact, by unquestioning journalism in authoritative broadsheet newspapers.

Unsubstantiated figures, borderline racist claims and unquestioning ‘churnalism’, a phrase coined by Davies himself, is not the preserve of the Guardian, of course. Other broadsheets have helped stir up a moral panic around trafficking and sex work by reporting fantastical tales or extrapolating from individual testimonies of horrific abuse the occurrence of systematic enslavement, rape and abuse of women and children at the hands of foreign thugs. Independent columnist Johann Hari, for instance, has claimed that the developed world is beset by an ‘epidemic of human trafficking (in effect, sex slavery)’. Hari says that ‘usually, they [sex workers] are tricked into coming here with promises of jobs as nannies or secretaries, and then trapped into lives of unspeakable degradation’ (15).

In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, some British journalists reported that thousands of women from across the world were going to be trafficked into Germany to work as sex slaves for football fans. The Independent reported that Germany was about to experience a ‘sex explosion’ (16). In the Guardian, Julie Bindel said ‘Germany’s pimps are casting their eyes on poverty-stricken countries… in their search for women for the Cup’ (17). As it turned out, German police uncovered just five cases of ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’ during the World Cup – and one of the victims was a German (18). This did not stop Mary Honeyball from claiming two weeks ago that ‘thousands of prostitutes were drawn to Germany during the last World Cup’ and that ‘trafficking is on the rise in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, which like all other international sporting events is predicted to effect a steep rise in prostitution’ (19).

Anyone who dares to challenge the statistics and assumptions around trafficking – as spiked has been doing for the past five years – is accused of being a ‘denier’ serving some hidden interest. Yet last week’s revelations in the Guardian demonstrate, yet again, what some of us have claimed for a long time: that ‘trafficking’ is an invalid, confusing concept which does more harm than good – and, ultimately, anti-trafficking campaigns are anti-migrant campaigns.

A PC clampdown on free movement

Of course, many migrant men, women and children are exploited and sometimes forced into prostitution. Some sex workers would not have imagined, at the start of their journeys across the world, that they would end up working in the sex industry. So what’s the problem with the media’s focus on abused and victimised migrants and with anti-trafficking operations designed to ‘rescue’ such individuals?

Firstly, as we have seen, many sex workers dismiss the idea that they are slaves in need of rescue. They simply want to get on with their jobs so they can provide for themselves and their families. For some working in the sex industry – which by the way covers everything from charging for sex to providing attentive dinner company, pole dancing and selling sex toys, erotic DVDs and lingerie – is enjoyable, while for others it is simply a better option than other lines of work available to them.

Of course, women often enter the sex industry because of a lack of choice; few girls dream of becoming prostitutes and few women are under any illusion that they will be the next Pretty Woman, whisked off into a life of luxury by some Richard Gere lookalike. Yet many workers in various jobs and sectors, especially poorly paid migrant workers, similarly feel that they have limited options.

As Mai, who interviewed 100 migrant sex workers in the UK from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, has pointed out: ‘Working in the sex industry is often a way… to avoid the unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they [migrants] meet in non-sexual jobs.’ He argued that, by working in the sex industry, some migrants ‘are able to maintain dignified living standards in the UK while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families’ (20).

Secondly, clampdowns on the sex industry can actually make sex workers more vulnerable. All the activists and sex workers I have met and interviewed have acknowledged that some within their line of work have experienced assault and can find themselves in vulnerable situations, but they have also said that decriminalisation is the best way of ensuring that sex workers avoid harm. All of Mai’s interviewees ‘underlined how restrictive migration policies and the criminalisation of clients and (indirectly) of sex workers would make them more likely to take risks and accept undignified and dangerous conditions’ (21). For many migrant sex workers, interference by authorities and NGO-led rescue-missions are a bigger threat to their livelihoods and wellbeing than punters.

Thirdly, as I and others have pointed out numerous times on spiked, it is anti-trafficking campaigns and legislation that pose the greatest threats to migrant workers, restricting their choices and making them vulnerable to exploitation. Undoubtedly there are genuine cases of kidnapping and many migrants end up being exploited and doing work they had not expected to do. But today, more and more forms of migration are being redefined as ‘trafficking’ that must be restricted for the migrants’ own good. This is making life difficult for those who must, or who want to, move across borders for work.

Most foreigners who wish to come to the UK cannot do so legally and so they end up paying strangers to transport them over borders. Once here, they have no access to legal work and end up in the ‘shadow economy’ – thus they qualify as figures in the confused and inflated trafficking statistics that ‘rescuers’ rely on in their fight against ‘the modern-day slave trade’. In other words, anti-traffickers are campaigning against movement instead of fighting for more liberal migration policies so that foreigners don’t have to take risky, expensive journeys to the UK and seek work in the shadow economy once they get here.

Fourthly, ‘anti-trafficking’ is now a PC term for repatriation. Instead of showing solidarity with migrant workers, arguing for the right of foreigners in the UK to earn decent wages and to enjoy good working conditions, feminists, human rights campaigners and religious groups have joined forces with the police to clamp down on migration, helping to criminalise migrant workers, to rob women of agency and portray those working in the sex industry as rape victims. In their view, migration is too risky and disruptive and women should be kept in their place instead of moving to a new country and potentially ending up in the sex industry. Anti-trafficking measures are little more than a new form of repatriation where migrants must be kept at bay or ‘rescued’ and sent back to their home countries ‘for their own good’.

Instead of ‘protecting’ migrants, anti-traffickers and abolitionists are using made-up statistics to fuel self-righteous campaigns that actually make migrants more vulnerable to exploitation. And for this reason, the hysterical war on trafficking must be urgently brought to an end.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution, Guardian, 20 October 2009

(2) Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution, Guardian, 20 October 2009

(3) Keep trafficking unit, Met urged, BBC News, 7 October 2009

(4) A law which will protect women from exploitation, Guardian letters, 22 October 2009

(5) Don’t shut down the trafficking unit, by Mary Honeyball, Guardian Comment is Free blog, 7 October 2009

(6) Fiona Mactaggart and the dodgy prostitution statistics, Telegraph, 9 January 2009

(7) A law which will protect women from exploitation, Guardian letters, 22 October 2009

(8) See Prostituting women’s solidarity, by Nathalie Rothschild

(9) Sex trafficking is no illusion, by Rahila Gupta, Guardian Comment is Free blog, 20 October 2009

(10) See More evidence that trafficking is a myth, by Nathalie Rothschild

(11) Sex trafficking is no illusion, by Rahila Gupta, Guardian Comment is Free blog, 20 October 2009

(12) Sex trafficking: a futile war of statistic, by Denis MacShane, Guardian Comment is Free blog, 21 October 2009

(13) See We’re all traffickers now, by Nathalie Rothschild

(14) Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic, by Nick Davies, Guardian, 20 October 2009

(15) At last – an opportunity to legalise prostitution, Independent, 2 January 2004

(16) Germany backs bigger brothels to fight World Cup sex explosion, Independent, 9 December 2005

(17) Foul play, by Julie Bindel, Guardian, 30 May 2006

(18) See Exposed: the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’, by Bruno Waterfield

(19) Don’t shut down the trafficking unit, by Mary Honeyball, Guardian Comment is Free blog, 7 October 2009

(20) Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: First Findings, Dr Nick Mai, July 2009

(21) Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: First Findings, Dr Nick Mai, July 2009

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Topics Politics


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